President Biden Must Forcefully Oppose Netanyahu’s Rafah Escalation Plans, Stress Unavoidable Consequences

February 15, 2024

J Street is deeply concerned about a possible intensive Israeli military operation in Rafah and calls on President Biden to publicly outline the clear and dire consequences for Israel’s own interests that such a move may trigger.

President Biden is already on record saying that an operation “should not proceed” in Rafah without a credible plan for protecting over one million people, many of whom have been “displaced multiple times fleeing the violence to the north and now they are packed into Rafah, exposed and vulnerable.”

Similar concerns have been expressed by other American and international leaders – including the UK, Canada, France, Australia and Germany – who have highlighted the possible catastrophic short- and long-term consequences for both Palestinians and Israelis. These include an intolerable increase in civilian casualties, a major increase in regional escalation risk, and the crumbling of multinational diplomatic efforts to secure the release of hostages and a day-after plan for Israeli-Palestinian and regional peace.

Vital Israeli voices are raising concerns as well. Hostage families are highlighting the danger that a Rafah offensive puts their loved ones in and the risk that the operation could derail sensitive release negotiations. Furthermore, former Prime Ministers Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak continue to warn that Netanyahu is putting personal political interests ahead of a hostage release deal that would suspend hostilities. And, according to reports, members of Israel’s War Cabinet are calling for more patience in the pursuit of Hamas and that hostage releases and international support must be given greater priority. These voices should be elevated. J Street maintains that diplomacy must be prioritized and play a pivotal role in defeating Hamas.

One week ago, the White House issued a new National Security Memorandum requiring – in short order – thorough reporting to Congress on the Israeli government’s compliance with US and international law. The President should make clear that actions the Netanyahu government takes now regarding Rafah will be reflected in that report and will have real implications for future US military assistance. Further, the President should make clear that the United States will not defend violations of international law in international fora or obstruct fair-minded efforts to pursue accountability through international institutions.

Finally, the impact of such an escalation on a range of diplomatic efforts and on regional stability cannot be underestimated. As mentioned, it may derail sensitive hostage release negotiations currently underway. Egypt has also warned that a Rafah invasion risks suspension of the Egypt-Israel peace agreement. In a region already at a boiling point, images of yet more devastation in Rafah will only make a volatile situation on Israel’s borders even worse. Finally, a Rafah invasion could prove fatal to ongoing diplomatic efforts to secure a “day-after” framework leading to long-term, comprehensive regional peace agreements.

We call on President Biden to bring immediate and effective US pressure to bear to deter Prime Minister Netanyahu from this catastrophic course for Israelis and Palestinians, as well as for US interests.